You Can Achieve Inner Calm Through Mindfulness Practice

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live Mindfulnessin the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn, Ph.D.. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. Your memories of these moments may be like a series of snapshots. I bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you had experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t have recalled it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if you had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. You try to experience the moment without the chatter in your head, no internal comments, no judgments, just the experience.

For example, in clinical settings patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take the time now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice what you see, the colors, the shapes, the quality of the light. Notice what you hear, both the louder sounds and the subtle sounds. Notice what your skin feels, the temperature of the air, the clothes you are wearing. Notice how your body feels.

In particular, notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of your present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

thanksgiving_photoOnce more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.

In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.

We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.

First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.

The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.

The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.

We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

Gazing is Good for the Soul

Have you taken the time to gaze today? Merriam-Webster defines gaze as: “to fix the eyes in a steady intent look Thoughtful womanoften with eagerness or studious attention.” There is a difference between gazing at something and looking at something. To gaze one must pause and be still. In gazing, we take a momentary break from the rush or frenetic activity of common life. There is a particular feeling when we “fix the eyes” that is difficult to describe.

There are many possible objects of our gaze; a sunset or sunrise, a cloud, a range of mountains or an ocean.  The object may be closer; an insect working, a flower or falling snow. Most of the time, we find ourselves gazing at nature, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking the time to gaze at a loved one, who is engaged in some activity, can be quite satisfying as it reminds us of our appreciation for that person.

You see, I’ve been enjoying a bit of gazing this morning. As I write this, I’m alternating my focus between the laptop and the beach, but most of the morning I have been gazing exclusively. One can’t truly gaze, while trying to multitask. True gazing demands exclusive attention.

While most gazing occurs spontaneously, it can be deliberately cultivated. Try to find opportunities to pause, disengage from your busy day and gaze. It’s good for the soul.

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

thanksgiving_photoOnce more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.

In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.

We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.

First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.

The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.

The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.

We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

You’ll Never Guess What I Did Today!!

ImageToday has been a truly magnificent day! This day has been filled with a long-awaited and long overdue activity. The day was exactly what I needed. The day filled my spirit and nourished my soul.

Today, I did nothing!

I didn’t vegetate in front of a TV (not my thing). I didn’t sleep (naps make me feel groggy). I didn’t travel, entertain, educate myself, exercise or explore. I had plenty to do, of course, but I chose to do none of it. It could wait. It did wait, and the world didn’t alter its rotation at all, as far as I could tell.

I did sit and look at the beautiful view from my house. Actually, I gazed, which is much better than looking. I did have brief, pleasant conversations with family, but even these were not intended to be productive or purposeful. I listened to some quiet music, more as background for the gazing than anything. I did a little reading, punctuated by more gazing.

I don’t have days like this very often. I don’t try to have days like this very often. I have too many things that I like to do, too many interests, too many projects to have many do-nothing days. My usual wish is that I could pack 48 hours in every 24 hour day. I usually enjoy activity.

But, sometimes I need a time to do nothing. We all do. We need a time to slow down, contemplate, and perhaps, to gaze. Time moves more slowly. We experience the moment, then the next moment. We recharge, perhaps we recalibrate our internal motors.

The demands of life often postpone such times. We (at least me) tend to squeeze the most we can get out of every minute. It’s usually an okay choice, but, not today. Today I did nothing, and it felt good.   

If you’re like me and most of your days are filled to the brim, you might like to schedule an appointment to do nothing. It won’t happen by itself. You’ll have to make it happen. Who knows? It might also be good for your soul!

Question: What is your favorite way to spend a “do-nothing” day? What benefits do you see when you slow your life down?